The top 6 journalist peeves – and how to avoid them!

We’ve all been there.  You pluck up the courage to call a journalist, palms sweaty, heart pounding.  You’ve got your pitch ready to go, you’ve got all the answers to every possible question – and then you’re shot down before you get to the good bit.

Don’t take it personally. Pitching to journalists is your job – you have a story, they need stories, and preferably lots of them so they can choose the best for that particular moment in time. It is perfectly reasonable to call them and pitch … today they might put the phone down on you, tomorrow they’ll bite your hand off for that story.

Angry journalist

So what are the things that really wind them up?  Here are the top do’s and don’ts for avoiding journalist wrath:

1. Timing.  PR is all about timing.  And I do mean all about timing.  From the time of day you sell it in, to what crops up in the newsroom later, and of course the timeliness and relevance of the story itself.  If you call a journalist halfway through the day with a news story for tomorrow, you’ve missed the boat. Call a journalist on deadline and not only will they ignore your call but they won’t have time to process the story anyway. Again you’ve missed the boat.  Tip:  Plan your story and get the timing right.

2. Waffle. No journalist ever has the time (or inclination) to listen to you meander through a long-winded pitch that loses them after 10 seconds.  They’re always on deadline, they’re usually under-resourced and they were doing something else when you called. They want a short sharp pitch that gets straight to the point so they can make a quick decision on your story: yes or no.  Even if you know the journalist well and have had plenty of friendly chats with them in the past, always assume they have no time to speak and let them offer up any chat. Tip:  Write a bullet-pointed script for your pitch and rehearse with a more experienced colleague before you make a call.

3. Ignorance. At some point in your career, you’re going to have to pitch a story you know nothing about.  However, if you don’t sound like you know the story inside out, the journalist will spot it and that will make them nervous or irritated.  You’re the person selling that story, so they expect you to understand it.  They don’t expect you to be a subject matter expert, but they need to trust you and in turn trust the legitimacy of the story. Tip:  Be confident when you pitch – it’s a performance. Learn to sound like you know what you are talking about – inside-out.  If you can’t answer a question, tell the journalist you’ll get them the answer by the deadline they need it.

4. Laziness. I know there are thousands of journalists out there, each one covering a niche news beat and only a tiny minority of your stories will be relevant to anyone.  And I know it takes hours and hours to compile a media list of those ‘needles in a haystack’ – but there’s no shortcut.  None.  If you want to get the maximum coverage for your press release, you need to get your story in front of the maximum number of relevant journalists. Doing so will take some research to find as many relevant, interested journalists as possible.  And for those that aren’t interested, you’re simply an irritation, filling up their inbox with spam – and to them that’s lazy. Tip:  Know your media and take the time to build a targeted list of journalists for each story.

5. Puff. All good journalists have ‘puff-dar’, a second sense for an over-hyped and unsubstantiated story.  It’s the sort of story that makes your toes curl when the client briefs you, you know it’s not going to ‘set the heather on fire’. Our desire to keep the client happy can sometimes mean we go against our best instincts and put out a ‘puff’ story.   It’s easy to get carried away and to persuade ourselves that it’s a story, but we know the minute we start pitching to a journalist that it’s not and never was.  Tip:  Don’t be afraid to say no to clients.  Trust your instincts and find a different story.

6. Bad writing.Don’t do it.  No excuse.  We are communicators and writing is our craft so always make sure you write in plain English, with the story front and centre and everything spell-checked. Tip:  Use PingGo to learn how to write an on-message media-ready press release the first time.

There are many ways to annoy a journalist, sometimes you just catch them on a bad day.  But it’s your job to get them the stories so if you get on the wrong side of one, don’t give up, dust yourself down and if you do something daft, don’t do it again.

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